Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Buying the Cow

A semi-new correspondent writes:

You mentioned having too few faculty for student advising... do you or would you use "adjuncts" for this? My gig is asking me (and other adjuncts) to do de facto full time duties: attend weekly meetings, advise students, etc. They pay a decent stipend for this which is nice but my fear is that by using us in this manner they are able to able to not commit to hiring more full timers. Also because they're not offering me a full time course load I have to moonlight elsewhere and often can't attend these meetings I'm now supposed to attend. Is this like the dating adage "why would you buy the cow when you get the milk for free"? Would love the admin's perspective on this.

(signed) Adjunct Human

This strikes me as related to the post from a couple of months ago about permatemping.

Yes, my cc uses adjuncts as academic advisors. They're paid for their time, they're trained, and some of them are among the best advisors on campus. We do that because the full-time faculty contract stipulates a maximum number of advisees that f-t faculty can be assigned, and if we didn't augment that somehow, about two-thirds of our students wouldn't have advisors at all. It's born of necessity.

(There's also the sheer fact of the academic year. We can't require f-t faculty to show up in August, but many of their advisees show up in August looking for help.)

As I mentioned in the permatemp post, I've tried to maintain a bright line somewhere distinguishing adjunct work from full-time work. While it's sometimes inconvenient, and educationally suboptimal, it's a way to prevent 'permatemp' lawsuits that would bankrupt the college. I won't pretend for a minute that it's an ideal solution, but given extraordinarily limited resources and a litigious climate, it's the best we can do.

In terms of the cow/milk metaphor, I'll make a distinction between the individual cow and the collective cow.

I've been doing this for a while now, and I can say that one statement I've never heard is "Jen is such a great adjunct -- let's not hire her!" That's simply not how it has played out.

On the individual level, doing a great job at every aspect of the work makes you more valuable to keep around. I have hired incumbent adjuncts to full-time positions, and on those occasions, their excellent track records locally were major selling points.

On the collective level, though, it's true that the more that can be done on the cheap, the more will be. There are limits to that, but the force of economic gravity is strong. So behavior that's individually rational -- doing the best job you can -- is collectively destructive.

In the case of cows, where the best milk producers are valuable but too much milk on the market reduces the worth of each cow, the paradox is resolved through an expensive and complicated system of farm subsidies. Excess cows are subsidized; extra faculty aren't. I choose not to devote too much thought to this, since it's pretty depressing.

A couple of weeks ago, the academic blogosphere got all worked up about a college that turned down retired faculty teaching on a volunteer (that is, free) basis. The bloggers assumed that it was The Administration not wanting anybody they couldn't control. I don't know the situation on that campus, but I can say that when we've had volunteers offer to help with advising or tutoring here, the union objected. They were afraid that the volunteers would allow the college to get by with fewer union jobs. A similar logic applies here. When facing both a double-digit budget cut and a double-digit enrollment increase, the short-term temptation to get work done on the cheap is very compelling. Blame whomever you want; the math speaks for itself. If your income dropped twenty percent and your rent increased twenty percent, wouldn't you cut your spending on other things?

This situation didn't develop overnight, and it won't be fixed overnight. Elements of a fix could include widespread work stoppages by organized adjuncts, greatly reduced numbers of people going to grad school in the evergreen disciplines, and/or a substantial and sustained infusion of money into colleges' operating budgets. I'm not holding my breath on any of those. Unless supply comes more into line with demand, the overall situation will remain bleak. I don't like it either.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on the paradox of the collective cow?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.